Culture shock can be a the most difficult part of traveling or moving abroad. After over ten years of living overseas, I thought it might be useful to write a list of the things that have helped me to deal with it.
Everyone experiences culture shock differently, so I’ve compiled a list that will hopefully reach a wide range of people. Here are my 10 tips for dealing with culture shock, in no particular order.
Table of Contents
10 tips for dealing with culture shock
Before we start
It’s important to note that culture shock kicks in at different times for different people. Some may have a ‘honeymoon period’ for the first few weeks, and then start feeling it. Others might experience it earlier on. It manifests itself in different ways for different people, so unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy.
The worst aspect of my culture shock has always been homesickness. I’m working on a post about that, so if you’re anxious about being far from loved ones, stay tuned!
Some people’s culture shock shows up as frustration with differences. I have seen someone cry because their hair dryer didn’t work in another country. I have seen someone scoff as they washed dishes in a rented apartment and mumbled, “Even the SPONGES are weird here.” I have seen this same person have a fit because meal times were so much later than they were used to. I’ve seen people laughing at local fashion, and insist on eating at McDonald’s every other day. I’ve seen people be appalled at the lack of a microwave and clothes dryer in an apartment.
Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy, there’s no one-size-fits-all experience.
Do some research before you leave
What can you learn before you go? Talk to people who have visited or lived in the country you’re going to. Ask them what they were surprised by, or what was difficult for them to get used to. Look at blogs and travel websites. That way, you’ll know what changes you’re going to have to make and what to prepare yourself for, so you don’t end up in tears over your hair dryer, or eating at McDonald’s every other day.
Once you’ve found out some things about your host culture, ask yourself if there’s a behavior or habit that you’re going to have to change overseas. How can you adapt, thereby setting yourself up for feeling comfortable in your host culture?
For example, I had to purchase a new wardrobe when I moved to Senegal, both because of the weather, and because I wanted to present myself in a way that was appropriate in the local culture. I read some blogs and contacted a friend of a friend who had lived there so I knew what to get. I bought a bunch of long skirts at my local second-hand shop, loaded up on the same cotton t-shirt in several different colors, and I was good to go! Did I miss all my cocktail dresses hanging up in the closet at my parents’ house? Of course, but did I do the right thing by adapting my wardrobe to my host climate/culture? Yes.
Is there some sort of product that you can’t live without that isn’t available in your host country? Easy, bring it with you. I usually bring peanut butter, toothpaste, and hairspray from the US, because I know I like certain kinds that are hard to find abroad. Having them makes me happy and comfortable. If you can think of anything like that, stock up and save a few pounds in your suitcase. It’ll be worth it!
Get over your jet lag as soon as possible
Being tired makes everything worse. Try to get on the correct sleep cycle as soon you can! Feeling refreshed will help you to take on your new world.
Resist the urge to stay in talking to friends or family constantly. The sooner you get out and get a feel for your new city/town, the sooner you’ll feel at home. Explore your neighborhood, scope out a new café, try a local restaurant, and visit the sites.
Don’t want to do it alone? If you’re going somewhere for study abroad, you’ll probably meet house or classmates when you arrive, so you’ll have people to hang out with. If you’re moving for work, you’ll meet colleagues.
If your situation is different and you won’t be immediately connected with a group of people, see if you can make some connections of your own before you go. Ask around to see if friends, family, or coworkers know anyone in the place you’ll be going to. Get in touch with them, ask them what to see and do, and invite them for lunch or coffee. I’ve loved connecting with friends of friends and family who have come to Italy, and I always have a ball showing them around.
There are also lots of groups for expats on Facebook. We have a language exchange group here in Padua that is really fun, and welcomes new members all the time, both on Facebook, and in person.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to people! It’ll be nice to have some company when you arrive. The people you hang out with at first don’t have to become your best friends. They might, but if you just need company, don’t be picky. Obviously, if someone or something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut, but I’d hope that if you’re with a friend of a friend, or new classmates or colleagues, you’ll be ok.
Get some exercise
Exercise can be helpful for several reasons. The first is that walking or jogging in your new home will help you learn how to get around quickly. The other reason is that it’ll make you feel good. If you’re blue about being far from home and in a new place, boosting your endorphins will definitely make you feel better!
If you join a gym or fitness group, you’ll probably make some friends too! And from the point of view of a teacher and learner, it’s also a great way to learn new words in the local language.
Remember that you’re the weird one
This dawned on me a few years ago. When you’re abroad and everything seems weird, wrong, at odds with what you know, annoying, frustrating, or incomprehensible, sometimes it can be good to take a step back and realize that you are actually the thing that’s weird in the situation. One of these things is not like the others, and it’s probably you, dude.
Taking a deep breath and focusing on the fact that you’re the one who isn’t used to this particular thing, but that everyone in the local culture is, means that you can reframe whatever it is that’s weirding you out as something that you can (probably) get used to. If people in another place do it, you can to.
Of course, I’m not talking about anything that compromises who you are in your heart of hearts, or something you might have a moral objection to, but if everyone in your host culture doesn’t wait in line, or something (that just came to me off the top of my head, can’t think of why), remember that you are the only one trying to be orderly. This can significantly ease frustration. Take a deep breath, observe what’s happening around you, laugh, and then ruthlessly cut the old lady in front of you (kidding – I still can’t bring myself to cut anyone in line. It just feels so wrong).
One of the most important things you can do when trying to mitigate culture shock is to be open. It can be extremely challenging to open up when your mind and heart want to close down, but the more you open yourself up to your host culture, the faster you’ll learn to navigate it, and ultimately feel a part of it.
When I went to Rome to study abroad, I quickly noticed that most of the people in my program stuck very, very closely together. I made a few friendships with roommates and people in my classes, and luckily, most of the people I became friendly with also wanted to meet locals, like I did. I ended up with a nice mix of friends from both the US and Rome, which made it feel like home in a way that I had never thought possible.
Definitely try new foods. I’ve found that most people are really happy for foreigners to try their local cuisine, and they’re delighted when you like it. If you really like it, find out how to cook it so that you can share it with your friends and family when you get home.
Explore new ways of doing things, and find out whether or not they agree with you. I tried riding a bike when I moved to Padua, because that’s what the locals do. I was scared, but I tried it. It was nice to get around town quickly, but the possibility of getting run over and ending up with my brain smooshed on the pavement like a grape was too much for me, so I don’t ride a bike anymore.
I guess being open comes with a caveat. Be open, try things, but know yourself, too. If bi-valves make you vomit or you’re not super into the idea of eating offal, don’t do it. And always wear a helmet.
During your first few weeks in a new place, the differences are going to jump out at you constantly. It’s really important to avoid getting negative about these differences. I remember those same people in my study abroad program that I mentioned above sitting together on breaks between classes, making fun of the Italian students on campus. Two of the guys in my program even dressed as “Italians” for Halloween. Gross! I’m cringing at the memory. If you consistently allow yourself to think negatively about the differences, your experience is going to be just that – negative.
In order to combat this, try being curious instead of critical. If the local cuisine isn’t agreeing with you, see if you can pinpoint why, or try some new dishes to see what you do like. If there’s a custom you don’t understand, investigate what the deal is. For example, here in Italy, people consider it strange to have a cappuccino or caffè latte after lunch. Bigger coffees with milk are traditionally drunk with breakfast, whereas after the morning, espresso is the way to go. This might frustrate some people. Why the hell can’t you have a cappuccino in the afternoon?! Ask somebody! Their explanation might help you to grasp why it’s a thing. It also might not, but at least you’ll have understood something about the local culture, rather than letting it bother you.
Disclosure: I’m over that one, and I get big coffees in the afternoon. I’ve lived in Italy for almost seven years, and sometimes, you just need to break the rules.
Take a language class
Being able to communicate in the local language will completely change your time abroad. Your day-to-day life will get easier, and being able to interact with people will be incredibly empowering.
Taking a language class will also give you the opportunity to meet new people who are interested in the local culture. Classmates can become great friends!
If you’re going to study abroad somewhere, a language class might be mandatory, but I’d recommend learning some of the language before you leave. My sweetheart had great luck with this Italian grammar book, and I really liked the French version.
Once you get your feet under you, consider volunteering. Even if your language skills aren’t perfect, you can still find things to do. Maybe there’s an association that collects food or clothing for the needy. Maybe there’s one that organizes neighborhood cleanups. Maybe you can volunteer teach English in a local school. Volunteering is another great way to make friends, and it allows you to get involved in your host community in a really meaningful way.
Hang in there
You might have some bad days. You might make some mistakes. You might say something in your new language that is really silly or offensive, and people will laugh at you.
In Italian, for example, you’re often one letter away from a huge gaffe: penne is both a pasta shape and the plural of pen, and pene means penis, so that’s fun. Wishing someone a happy new year is dangerously close to saying “good anus”. That’s another great one.
Take a deep breath! Eventually, the rewards will outweigh the difficulties, and if you let yourself be curious, the differences won’t seem so bad.
So, there are 10 tips for dealing with culture shock! Despite the difficulties you might have initially, being abroad will stimulate you in ways you never thought possible. If you let it, it will change you and really show you how awesome our world is, and how many wonderful people there are in it.
How do you deal with culture shock? Share in the comments below!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow one of them and purchase something, I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.